Federal Liberal cabinet ministers are trading in their summer barbecue bibs for crisp autumn button-downs this week as they gather for a three-day work retreat in Vancouver before beginning their pilgrimage back to Ottawa for the opening of Parliament’s next legislative session.
Having fanned out across the country over the past 10 weeks, ministers will have heard many common themes from Canadians. They’ll, no doubt, report back about how they’ve been told by constituents to do more to address critical issues like affordability and the skyrocketing prices for consumer goods, global warming and refugee resettlement, to name just a few.
But when ministers convene to compare notes on their summer dispatches, there’s another far more insidious problem that needs to be brought to the cabinet table for deliberation. It’s one, in fact, that threatens the very fabric of our democracy: anger, aggression and hate spurred by increasing social polarization.
A high-profile example of this social schism was on plain display late last month when Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was verbally berated by a man and a woman when she went to meet the mayor of Grande Prairie, Alta., at city hall.
Prime Minister Trudeau was quick to denounce the actions, saying: “This kind of cowardly behaviour threatens and undermines our democracy and our values and openness and respect, upon which Canada was built.”
Strong words for sure. Indeed, calling out threats and hateful rhetoric is an important act. But it is still just a single step in what needs to be a far more comprehensive and co-ordinated response plan that must transcend partisan affiliations.
Politicians aren’t alone in experiencing this rising tide of hate. Over the past several months, dozens and dozens of journalists from across the country, many of whom are women and/or journalists of colour, have been targeted by what appears to be an orchestrated campaign of online hate and harassment by multiple nefarious actors and groups.
Journalists have been threatened with physical harm. They’ve had their inboxes and social media accounts bombarded with messages filled with racist epithets and images of graphic sexual violence hidden behind a cloak of anonymity and perpetuated by a culture of impunity.
Hate and harassment, whether online or in-person, are parts of the world we live in. We must go beyond more condemnation to combat hate.
What else can be done?
The federal government must confront and deal with #threats to our democracy: anger, aggression and hate spurred by increasing social polarization, writes @CAJ president @Brent_T_Jolly. #journalists #harassment #CDNPoli #OnlineHate
That’s certainly not a simple question to answer. But what is certain is we cannot stand by idly, palms to the sky, in the hope this problem suddenly abates and then magically disappears. We must start somewhere because we’ve reached a breaking point.
That’s why, last week, in a remarkable show of industry solidarity, more than 50 news organizations and press freedom groups, including Canada’s National Observer and the Canadian Association of Journalists, banded together to issue a series of calls to action to a lengthy list of federal cabinet ministers and opposition party leaders.
The message delivered was simple and straightforward: the exponential spread of hate and harassment are global problems that threaten not only the safety and well-being of journalists but the proper functioning of democracy itself.
As the document states, efforts to mitigate future harms will need to include legislative reforms, improved collaboration and co-ordination between law enforcement agencies and the need to hold social media platforms accountable for the toxic stew that is all too frequently shared on their platforms.
Within hours of their publication, Trudeau responded to the calls to action, saying the government would look at the proposals in the context of “a systemic approach to weaken our democracy [and] to intimidate those who are there to hold to account.”
At face value, the response is moderately encouraging. But if past precedent is a prediction of future behaviour, you’ll understand why I’m careful not to invest too heavily in grand pronouncements that are not tied to substantive action.
This is, after all, the same government that promised during the last election campaign it would introduce legislation within its first 100 days to combat serious forms of harmful online content. As part of that legislation, the Liberals also promised to strengthen the Canada Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to combat online hate more effectively. That bill is long past due.
To extend what CNO columnist Max Fawcett wrote last week, the vile threats being volleyed against Canadian journalists are just another example of “stochastic terrorism” at play. This is not about journalists asking for any kind of “special treatment” or protection. It is, instead, about asking our leaders, and ourselves, whether we are prepared to allow our civic discourse to nosedive into the creeping calls of authoritarianism and conspiracy-laden chaos.
As a citizen and a journalist, that’s a reality that both disappoints and frightens me. But without swift and decisive action, I fear we are now approaching the point of no return.
Brent Jolly is the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.